There are portents and omens, but sometimes there’s just weather. At midnight, as November began, there was an hour of heavy rain here in Los Angeles, the first rain in ten months or so – no one here can actually remember the last time it rained so no one’s quite sure about that. It doesn’t matter. It never rains in Southern California, as the song goes. Gene Kelly was singing in the fake rain on a soundstage down at the old MGM studios in Culver City, not on an actual picturesque Hollywood sidewalk – but this time we did have rain, even if it was gone soon enough. Maybe that was a sign something unusual is in the air, that there are big changes coming – or else it meant nothing and the worst drought we’ve ever seen out here will continue. That’s more likely.
By the morning, Saturday morning, the rain was gone and the clouds moved out – the sun was back by noon, to stay – and on Sunday morning the Los Angeles Times landed with a considerable thump outside the front door. All the separate full-color Christmas ads tripled its mass, as usual. It’s that time of year, and the news was all about the midterm elections, coming on Tuesday – it’s that time of year too. Expect the expected.
Those elections, however, don’t matter much out here. Our two senators aren’t up for reelection this time, and no House seat is going to change hands – there are few Republicans left in California. None hold statewide offices now. We gave the nation Nixon and Reagan, but we’re through with such people. We know the damage they can do, so the election news was all about what was happening in all the other states. The Republicans are poised to take back the Senate – everyone seems to know they will – and with control of both the House and Senate, for the first time since Obama was elected six years ago, they’ll make life miserable for him, and miserable for everyone else too, to prove something or other. The next two years are going to be nasty, as if the first six years weren’t nasty enough. Edward Bulwer-Lytton once opened a novel with those famous words – “It was a dark and stormy night…” – and has been ridiculed ever since. That’s how Snoopy opens every novel he tries to write in those Peanuts cartoons, but maybe we should cut Edward Bulwer-Lytton some slack. Sometimes a dark and stormy night portends bad things – strife and conflict and confusion, and dark times. The heavy rain here might have been appropriate.
There is a bit of confusion in these midterms. Every Republican everywhere seems to be running against Obama, and Obama isn’t running for anything. They can’t make him go away, but they’re not talking much about Obamacare, which is working well enough. They’re not talking about immigration reform either, because Obama has done nothing there to tick them off. They decided to make sure Congress passed nothing, and were prepared to be outraged when Obama decided to pass all sorts of executive orders that would change things, but Obama never did. What’s there to talk about? The economy is fine too – gas is below three dollars a gallon for the first time in six years, the unemployment rate is back to where it was before the economy collapsed in the last year of the Bush administration, the stock market is at a record high – and no one took away their guns or their Confederate flags. Still, given all that, this election, even at the local dogcatcher level, seems to be about the awful things Obama has done to the country. Even Democrats in tight races are running away from him. They don’t want to be associated with him.
This is puzzling, and Andrew Sullivan has attributed it to events elsewhere:
If Americans thought that the days were long gone that they had to worry about Russian military power, they’ve been disabused of that fact this past year. Then the other recent success: getting out of Iraq and defeating al Qaeda. For many of us, this was one of Obama’s greatest achievements: to cauterize the catastrophe of the Iraq War, to decimate al Qaeda’s forces in Af-Pak, and to enable us to move forward toward a more normal world. The emergence of ISIS has dimmed that hope as well. It does two things at once: it calls into question whether our departure from Iraq can be sustained, and it presents the threat of Jihadist terror as once again real and imminent. So ISIS is a reminder of the worst of 9/11 and the worst of Iraq. Any sense that we have moved beyond those traumas has been unsettled, at the very least.
Add Ebola and you have the perfect storm, the perfect November storm. Things don’t seem right, even if all is well. Ebola won’t kill us all. The economy is in a recovery, finally – facts are facts. We are out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan, which everyone wanted for years. We didn’t win – no one ever knew what winning in either place meant – but we’re not spending trillions and the lives of our troops there for nothing either. That was always the best we could expect. But things are no better. We cannot seem to accept that. Republicans will win big in the midterm because, in these matters, things are neither here nor there, and Obama seems to be fine with that. He shouldn’t be. Americans don’t like ambiguity.
That might be the problem here, and might explain an op-ed in the Sunday Los Angeles Times from Andrew Bacevich, and he’s no lightweight:
Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr. (born 1947) is an American political scientist specializing in international relations, security studies, American foreign policy, and American diplomatic and military history. He is currently Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. He is also a retired career officer in the Armor Branch of the United States Army, retiring with the rank of Colonel. He is a former director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations (from 1998 to 2005).
Bacevich has been “a persistent, vocal critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, calling the conflict a catastrophic failure.” In March 2007, he described George W. Bush’s endorsement of such “preventive wars” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” His son, also an Army officer, died fighting in the Iraq War in May 2007.
He was also born in Normal, Illinois, so he’s quite normal, and he’s frustrated with this whole mess:
From 2002 to 2003, American generals thought invading Iraq would require half a million troops or so. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld knew – or claimed to know – better and allocated only 148,000. Sufficient to get to Baghdad, that number proved woefully inadequate to control the country. The George W. Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to yield a quick, tidy win. Instead, the Iraq war became the second-longest and just about the most expensive in U.S. history.
The longest is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, never adequately resourced by Bush or his successor. U.S. troops provided to pacify a country slightly larger than Texas and with a present-day population of 30 million reached a peak just above 100,000. Sure, North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies pitched in, but never in sufficient numbers to make a difference. So 13 years after arriving in Afghanistan, U.S. troops are now withdrawing, not victoriously, but with fingers crossed that the place won’t fall apart. We’ve seen what a similar hope in Iraq produced.
It’s not just Obama. The whole effort over all the years was neither here nor there:
These campaigns, and others, are part of a broader enterprise that from the outset suffered from this problem of under-resourcing. Over the course of several decades, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, bombed and raided places throughout the greater Middle East. We have killed considerable numbers of people. We have overthrown governments and installed others in their place. We have put the hurt on some very nasty militant groups (only to see others almost immediately appear).
What larger goal these actions are meant to achieve is not entirely clear. Proffered explanations have ranged from securing the world’s oil supply to eliminating terrorism to spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy.
Regardless of actual purpose, the overall undertaking qualifies as hugely ambitious. Through its military exertions in the Islamic world, the United States is clearly trying to achieve something very big. And whatever that something might be, it seems plain that the job is nowhere near to being finished.
Well, if we knew what the job was, we might finish it, but Bacevich isn’t so sure of that:
From the outset, Americans have refused to acknowledge what employing military means to do big things entails. On this point, the lessons of history are quite clear. Business as usual won’t do. Put simply, doing big things militarily necessitates reconfiguring national priorities, with peacetime pursuits taking a back seat to wartime imperatives.
The old-fashioned word for this is mobilization, which implies changing just about everything: tax rates, patterns of consumption, social relationships, educational priorities, the prerogatives exercised by the state and, of course, the size of the armed forces. In simplest terms, mobilization implies collective effort that involves collective sacrifice, without which wars fought to achieve big things are doomed to fail.
Vaguely inclined to “support the troops” as long as they themselves remain personally unaffected and uninvolved, Americans willfully ignore this essential truth: If you will the end, you must will the means. Meanwhile, in Washington, where dereliction of duty is a way of life, no one in a position of influence has mustered the gumption to state the obvious: For the United States to achieve “victory” in the greater Middle East will require exertions that exceed those made thus far by orders of magnitude.
Bacevich wants to remove all ambiguity:
Is victory, however defined, worth a vastly greater expenditure of lives and treasure? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to let out the stops. If the answer is no, then continuing on our present course is foolish, immoral and constitutes a betrayal of those sent to fight a war that we have no hope of actually winning. If we’re not willing to go all in, then we should go home.
That’s spoken like a military man, distressed that we seem to be trying to find proxies to fight our fight for us, not a student of geopolitics, who sees this is not really our fight at all, even if the threat these ISIS guys may pose to us one day is real enough. Flip the premise. Our “allies” in the region want us to be their proxy in fighting the bad guys that are a real threat to them, to fight the bad guys for them, because they’d rather not do that mobilization stuff that Bacevich mentions. Bacevich might be mad at Obama now, just as he was mad at Bush and Rumsfeld, but he could be just as angry at the Saudis, for example. What we have now, however, is neither, yet. This is now a neither here nor there war, and Obama owns it. That’s why he’s in trouble.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan suggests where Obama went astray:
When President Obama delivered his televised address on Sept. 10, announcing that he would now pursue ISIS throughout Iraq (not just where they threatened U.S. diplomats) and even into Syria, he clarified that the focus would remain on Iraq. To the extent he launched airstrikes in Syria they would be clustered along the border, to keep the jihadists from moving back and forth between the two countries or seeking safe haven. And at first, the bombs dropped on Syria did fall along the ISIS cross-border paths.
But by early October, Obama was dropping more bombs on Syria than on Iraq. What happened? Kobani. ISIS launched an assault against this town on the Turkish border. Intelligence indicated the town would soon fall. Local Kurds were running out of ammunition. Turkish President Recep Erdogan lined up tanks, but refused to roll them forward; he also blocked Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to help their Syrian brethren. So, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, Obama sent in the drones and the fighter planes.
For a short while, the bombing forced ISIS militias to lay low and fall back. But then, like most resourceful armies (and it turns out ISIS is resourceful), they adapted to the patterns of airstrikes and kept fighting. To bolster their ranks, thousands of jihadists flocked to Kobani from all over, to help the holy cause and to fight the American devils, even if it meant dying in the process. (In fact, for some, martyrdom was part of the appeal.)
And the rest is history:
Suddenly, the fight for this little-known town took on vast symbolic significance. And if ISIS was telling the world that Kobani was a decisive battle along the path to the Islamic State’s victory, then Obama – who’d put American resources and credibility on the line – had little choice but to treat it as a decisive battle as well. If ISIS won, the propaganda windfall would be immense.
So, Obama upped the stakes, dropping not only bombs on ISIS but also weapons and supplies to the Kurds. (One of the 28 airdrops drifted off course and wound up in the hands of ISIS, but all the others reportedly landed on target.) This is probably what energized the Iraqi peshmerga to come join the fight: Their contribution might not be futile, because the United States was now locked in.
And here we are, we’ve neither won there nor lost. The ambiguity is the background noise that will sink the Democrats in the midterms. Obama is neither here nor there on this, as on many things, and Kaplan notes this:
Figures released by U.S. Central Command show that the airstrikes over Syria and Iraq, combined, rarely exceed 25 per day. That’s not nothing, but it’s close. A joke recently circulating among Kurds was that they couldn’t tell whether the Americans were not fighting while pretending to fight – or fighting while pretending not to fight.
No one is happy with Obama, but Andrew Sullivan argues that Obama got trapped:
I watched two decent documentaries on the Islamic State this weekend – long overdue. The Frontline version is pretty tough on the Obama administration – in part because they start the story the day US forces formally left the country, rather than when the US first arrived. And so you see only half the picture. The implication is that Obama squandered the multi-sectarian “success” of the surge, took his eye off the ball, and allowed sectarianism a comeback.
But if your core analysis of the clusterfuck is that we removed a Sunni government of a majority Shia country after decades of Sunni brutality, then surely, Shiite revenge, in various forms, was always inevitable. Some occurred in the horrific sectarian cleansing under the US occupation – but it was met with just as savage Sunni violence and, of course, a resilient, murderous Sunni insurgency as well. In the aftermath, it would have taken a miracle of Mandela-like magnitude for a Shiite majority government, once in power and free of foreign occupation, not to exact some kind of revenge or act out of a deep sense of paranoia about the Sunnis; and it would have taken another miracle for such acts not to have been answered in turn.
This mess started long ago, and staying in Iraq would not have helped:
If we could barely contain the sectarian forces unleashed by the war with 150,000 troops, what hope when we had no troops left at all, or even a couple thousand? The last few years were for the Iraqis to finally make their choice as to what their future could be; and they could not overcome the past, or the entire history of the region. The only real alternative – a US occupation for decades – was simply not there. Maybe at some point Iraqis will be able to overcome their past. I sure hope so. But the only thing I’m sure of is that it won’t happen because America wants it to happen.
That’s why Sullivan preferred Vice’s inside look at this new Islamic State:
What I took from it was the totalizing coherence of the Caliphate’s vision. While the secular dictatorships of Saddam and Assad lie in smoldering ruins, and “democracy” in Iraq is empowering the infidel Shiites, of course a radically idealized theocratic invocation of the ancient Caliphate would have huge appeal (at least for the moment). It has erased the Sykes-Picot borders; it favors the most austere and ascetic form of Sunni Islam, and adds to these elements a kind of preternatural savagery toward its enemies or even its own population. That’s a very potent formula when fused with the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni populations seeking to defend themselves against Shiite regimes. So that’s what we have here – a well-trained, lethal, fanatical Sunni-state in embryonic form. And what Vice explains is how that is the real difference. Al Qaeda never ran a state or sought to. But ISIS is about a new political entity, attracting every frustrated, alienated young Muslim male left behind by the Arab Spring and yearning for meaning and direction.
But they’re not going to take over Kurdistan or Baghdad:
Their territory is currently very Sunni. And although the Potemkin Iraqi Army – did any of them ever expect really to fight? – is a slough of corruption and incompetence, there are plenty of nasty Shiite militias and dogged peshmerga who would put up one hell of a fight on their own territory. And it is worth recalling how these extremist movements have crested and crashed in the past as their savagery and religious purism have alienated the very people they need to control. They could as easily implode at some point as they could explode.
Running an actual state – as opposed to territory being milked to finance and support a sectarian war – has not historically been in the Jihadist skill-set. It requires all sorts of compromises and pragmatism and good government that fanatics tend not to be interested in. All of which leads one to see the prudence of Obama’s very limited pseudo-war. I’d have preferred no intervention at all – because that alone would force the regional powers to reckon with the IS in a way that might actually lead to a resolution. But given that we have intervened, it makes sense for it to be about policing the borders of the ISIS – and, say, acting to protect Baghdad’s airport – rather than anything more drastic.
That may make sense, but the American people hate that sort of thing. If we’re not willing to go all in, then we should go home. The normal man from Normal, Illinois, said that, even if Sullivan disagrees:
We would have been better leaving the Islamic State alone – if only to prevent the huge propaganda and recruiting tool that US intervention has created. (You want Iraq’s and Syria’s Sunnis to resist the fanatics? Don’t make them choose between the IS and the US.) But given Obama’s moment of weakness/panic this summer, what we’ve got is arguably the least worst of most of the alternatives. If the GOP wants to defeat the IS with combat forces, let them make that argument. If they want us to ally with Assad or Iran, ditto. Until then, we are stuck again in a quagmire in which, as yet, only our tippy-toes have gotten swamped.
The Republicans are not going to call for the defeat of the ISIS bad guys with our combat forces – they’re not that dumb. America is tired of wars over there. And they’re not going to call for the logical thing to defeat ISIS – we ally with Assad in Syria or the ayatollahs in Iran, who want ISIS gone too, and working on it right now. Those are the bad guys too after all. They’ll just point at Obama, who is neither here nor there on these matters. They need not specify their own actual here or an actual there – they’re not the folks in charge – and thus they win the midterms. The election seems to be about ambiguity. We’ll have none of that. How can you avoid that?
No good will come of this. November out here opened with dark heavy rain. It actually was a dark and stormy night. Perhaps it was an omen.